This is the tenth National Psychology Week, and we have found that Australia’s population is overall more depressed, stressed and anxious, with a lower sense of overall wellbeing, than was true even two years ago. These results gave me pause, as a Psychologist who has been working in the field for over thirty years, and who has led a campaign of public information in the hope that it would assist people to overcome personal difficulties and feel better in their lives. Are we getting through to people? Is intervention worthwhile and can psychologists assist people to build resilience and manage life’s crises more effectively?
Perhaps there are some specific reasons that people are feeling depressed and anxious in 2013. Do we have to eradicate the causes, or is it possible to feel better even when conditions aren’t as we’d like?
On the face of it, Australia is still a very lucky country. But we have been busily electing politicians in the last few years who play on peoples’ fears and negativity. Our leadership continually allege that the good life that we can see is an illusion, and that actually things are very bad – that we are in a “financial emergency”; that our borders are “being overwhelmed” by asylum seekers; that we have plenty to fear from the stranger, that things can only get worse. It takes the truly hardy to resist messages like that.
In addition, working Australians surveyed told us that they found work very stressful, and that they often did not feel valued by their employers.
The Australian Psychological Society survey revealed that, unfortunately, it is young people who are struggling most. It is they who are least happy, feeling the stress most. Perhaps they are being persuaded by the political messages that things are bad – on top of the normal financial and personal struggles that tend to accompany the push towards independence that young people are going through. Indeed, life is hard for many young people today, with the high cost of accommodation creating an enormous burden, especially for those trying to study while supporting themselves. And we have to protect those young people from the negative messages that suggest that life won’t get any easier, because young people can be very susceptible to hopelessness.
As we get older, we tend to be able to take a “long view” – to see that things can improve, that there may be many responses to any given situation. But for young people, “now” is often all there is, and if it is not right, then life has no meaning.
Although it is important that Australia’s leaders change their messaging, and lead people into a true understanding of the context in which we live, it is also vital that we teach young people that they can make things better for themselves and for others by their efforts. We have to teach them how to take a future view instead of remaining in the blackness of “now”. We have to believe – so that we can effectively communicate it to our young people – that this is a wonderful place to live and that together we can provide opportunities for everyone to live comfortably. We have to encourage young people to follow our lead and get to know our neighbours, to respect and value differences. We have to look for the good things in life, hold on to them, share the joy of them with those we love, and help them see the good things around them too.
All of these lessons are known to psychologists through solid research, which shows that when we heed them well, we build resilient communities, that support individuals who are less able to support themselves. Within resilient communities (and a workplace can be a “community”, too), individuals feel valued and know that others are looking out for their needs. When we live in a resilient community, the overall level of stress goes down. Depression and anxiety still exist, but without the ongoing stress it is easier to both protect against severe bouts of illness, and intervene early to improve the situation.
Psychologists of the 21st century work in all of these areas – building resilience, illness prevention, early intervention and assisting those with significant mental illness. I am proud to be part of the profession and celebrate with my colleagues this tenth National Psychology Week.
Adjunct Associate Professor Amanda Gordon is an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society and Founder of National Psychology Week.